Public relations has a problem with gender

Stephen Waddington is partner and chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor at Newcastle University.

New research from Liz Bridgen at Sheffield Hallam University shows that there are no easy answers to gender parity in public relations.

The numbers tell the story. Entry level roles in public relations in the UK are dominated by women. In management roles the situation is reversed.

Women account for 70 per cent of the workforce in public relations according to the Holmes Report and yet account for only 30 per cent of the top jobs.

The salary gap between the sexes has consistently been around £10,000 for the four years that the CIPR has tracked data.

It's nonsense. The Equal Pay Act outlawed any differences in salary between the sexes in 1970.

The CIPR has addressed the issue with advice and guidelines. It's a start and it helps characterise the issue but there's limited evidence to suggest that it’s making a difference.

"There’s no single solution. It’s a nuanced and complex issue with many contributing factors," said #FuturePRoof founder, and agency owner Sarah Hall. "This topic was the basis of my Masters more than a decade ago. I've maintained a keen interest in the issue ever since."

Fresh perspective from leavers

Liz Bridgen, a senior lecturer in public relations from Sheffield Hallam University, shared research at a conference at Birmingham City University earlier this month that could go some way to explaining this deep-rooted issue.

Bridgen is a senior lecturer in public relations and teaches both postgraduate and undergraduate public relations programmes. Her research explored why women left public relations by talking to women that had chosen to leave.

Much of the existing research focuses on women continuing to work in the profession and has led to the broad view that they cannot combine family life with working in public relations.

Flexible and part-time working are frequently touted as the solution. Bridgen suggests this is a sticking plaster.

Research in management, medicine and science makes the case that women who work flexibly versus colleagues who are there for the full work week, are sidelined or passed over for promotion, she says.

"Flexible working frequently equates to reduced hours. Liz makes a valuable point about the importance of being around for water cooler moments if you’re to get on at work," said Hall.

"Agile rather than flexible working for all staff would provide a better way of meeting the needs of both employees and organisations. What’s more, employers with strong, well-managed online communities allow staff to engage, and be part of organisational culture whether they work full time hours of not. It flattens hierarchy and reinstates opportunities."

“I can’t get no satisfaction”

Bridgen’s analysis is based on interviews with women that left public relations shortly before or around management level. No one left the business to spend more time with their children. Instead Bridgen found deeper-seated issues.

The research found that the overriding reason for women leaving public relations was because they saw a lack of meaning in the work that they were permitted to carry out.

"Employers are failing to employ public relations as a strategic management tool. This results in practitioners being boxed into tactical roles, generating the complaints cited," said Hall.

Bridgen found that peers, and those outside the industry, did not take them seriously and this caused the women to suffer a lack of self-belief in their own skills.

"I’m surrounded by many female entrepreneurs who, like me, were frustrated by the direction their careers were taking and took matters into their own hands," said Hall.

It’s a view that is consistent with Bridgen’s findings.

"Overall, the interviewees believed that they were pushed, rather than pulled, into leaving public relations due to being side-lined into non-career roles, removing them from relevant and career-enhancing power networks - and from the exciting and interesting work which they craved," Bridgen said.

Complex issue needs a complex solution

Bridgen's work is a welcome contribution to the gender discussion in public relations. I look forward to the full publication.

The research strikes at the failure of public relations to be recognised as a management discipline although my hunch is that men also leave the profession and seek alternative careers because they don't find the work fulfilling. This thesis needs to be tested.

Bridgen has broken the link between gender equality and family. She’s shown the root of cause of inequality to be an issue with the profession itself.

It’s an issue that won’t be tackled with a single solution. Pay transparency, equal representation, agile working, communities, the nature of work itself and the reputation of the profession, are all part of the answer.

Stephen Waddington is chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor in practice at Newcastle University. He tweets @wadds

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